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Innovative University

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Recently the trustees of my university were in town for their annual retreat. Our theme this year was "the innovative university," and we worked together to think through how Wesleyan might get out in front of some of the major changes in higher education. Technology, of course, is driving many of these changes, as is a strong desire (for many) to lower the cost of education while making it more vocational. In this context, how could our university preserve and build upon some of its great traditions of scholarship and learning while also creating opportunities for new modalities of education in the future? How do we expect student learning and faculty research to change over the next decades, and in what ways can the school contribute to making those changes as positive as possible? These were some of the broad issues the Board discussed with faculty, staff and student representatives. We are in a somewhat enviable position, I suppose. Many of the faculty and student see no reason to make significant changes. But is this a sign of confidence or complacency?

Given the many changes in higher education today, we focused the retreat on a number of possible innovations that would be "disruptive" -- that would change the platform for the educational experience of students. These ranged from significantly changing the time to degree, to collaborating with other institutions for joint programs, to adding many more online opportunities to our curriculum. The accounts of "disruptive innovation" we discussed from show how innovators reduce (or "redefine") quality in ways that cut costs substantially. I don't think further quality reduction in education is going to allow universities to deliver the education are students need. Making it easier for people to get a "certificate of competence" or a "digital badge of proficiency" doesn't make them competent or proficient.

I am particularly interested in how we can contain the cost of a degree while simultaneously offering every student opportunities to participate in the arts, athletics, internships, and independent research. There is no doubt that doing all this while maintaining our capacity to support original work by faculty and students will be especially challenging. But it is a challenge we take on because of our belief that the deepest educational experience depends on the scholar-teacher model - a model that encourages independent research and creative practice.

Like many of the trustees, faculty, and students present, I left the meeting thinking that the urge to streamline education to meet some imagined vocational standard was a big mistake. At many other institutions, under the guise of "innovation," calls for a more efficient, practical college education are likely to lead to the opposite: men and women who are trained for yesterday's problems and yesterday's jobs, men and women who have not reflected on their own lives in ways that allow them to tap into their capacities for innovation and for making meaning out of their experience. Under the pretense of "practicality" we are really hearing calls for conformity, calls for conventional thinking that will impoverish our economic, cultural and personal lives.

Nicholas Kristof yesterday told the story of two Wesleyan students who have defied conventional thinking by building a school for girls and a health clinic for mothers in Kibera, one of the largest slums in Kenya. Kennedy Odede and Jessica Posner are using their liberal arts education, their sweat equity and their powerful moral imaginations to develop a sustainable organization (ShiningHopeforCommunities.org) that is making an important difference in the lives of some of the most vulnerable. While doing so they continue to learn and to share their knowledge with others.

Thinking about the passionate dedication of these students, I feel energized to rethink how we might change liberal arts education while remaining true to its core values. The mission of universities focused on liberal learning should be, in Richard Rorty's words, "to incite doubt and stimulate imagination, thereby challenging the prevailing consensus." Through doubt, imagination and hard work, students "realize they can reshape themselves" and their society. Our trustees, faculty and students recognize that challenging the prevailing consensus can actually enrich our professional, personal and political lives. The free inquiry and experimentation of our education helps us to think for ourselves, take responsibility for our beliefs and actions, and be better acquainted with our own desires, our own hopes. Our education contributes not only to our understanding of the world but also to our capacity to reshape it and ourselves. That may be the most profound innovation of all.